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Bishop T.D. Jakes: Living Large, and Letting Go
At Midlife, The Minister Is Wondering What's Next

By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

He's about to turn 50, and to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary. It's time to take stock.

Is he happy? Satisfied?

Why wouldn't he be? This is the fabulous Bishop T.D. Jakes. Neo-Pentecostal preacher of the famous mega-church Potter's House in Dallas. He is a best-selling author, TV personality and head of TDJ Enterprises, which produces books, music and films. His church now has more than 30,000 members and when he last preached in Atlanta he drew more people than Billy Graham ever has. He lives in a mansion, drives a fancy car and wears sharp clothes. He is very, very big, literally and figuratively.

Still, he pauses a long time. "I am becoming satisfied," he says finally. "I feel like I have little to prove and none to impress. I'm starting to settle in like a bear in a cave in winter. I'm a lot more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. I'm finding my own sweet spot and I'm enjoying these years."

This is what he recommends -- for you and for me, for all of us. This is at the heart of his latest book, "Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limits."

"Most people I encounter, they're not happy," he says in a recent interview in the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel. "And we're acting like it doesn't matter. Either they're in debt or their relationships are not going well." The reason, he says, is that "we get stuck, we get trapped, either we have economic demands, or we need to fit in, or we have too many expectations for ourselves. We're enslaved, we're imprisoned by decisions made 20 years ago."

And we get defined by people when they first meet us. "Oh, T.D. Jakes, preacher. But they put a period there where they should put a comma. I'm a lot of other things, too. . . . I want to do something else with the second half of my life."

This is the perspective that comes with age. "Life itself is our most precious resource . . . and time. . . . We're not where we were in our 20s. We're losing our parents, our children are in their adolescence, and no matter how successfully busy we are, we are overwhelmed. It's not about how to get money. Success is about being fulfilled."

He says he is a work in progress, that he's willing to ask himself questions he wouldn't have asked 10 or 20 years ago. "Repositioning yourself gives you nimbleness of mind to evolve," Jakes says. "We keep trying to fit ourselves into this box. Nobody fits in it. We try to color within the lines but creative people want a blank piece of paper. Every relationship -- work, marital, political -- becomes crystallized. You have to find fresh inspiration. You have to find it in living and enjoying."

Jakes is a minister, no doubt about it, but he often sounds like a self-help guru. Religion is part of the answer, but it doesn't permeate his every sentence.

There are no lowered eyelids, deep breathing or heavy sighs when he talks about God, Jesus or the spiritual. Instead, he's jolly and mischievous. He's a huge man, tall and portly, looking very well pulled together in a navy double-breasted suit, crisp white shirt and fuchsia tie.

Everyone, he says, is searching for meaning. Why? "Pain. Short and simple. Nobody escapes it. It's the one thing we all experience in life. How do we cope? There has to be something beyond the temporal. After 9/11 the churches, synagogues and mosques were full. There are some things where there are not rational solutions. We need support with life and with death, with illness and disappointment."

His calling gives him insight. T.D. Jakes has heard it all. "There are not many who are with people in life-and-death experiences every day," he says. "Funerals, weddings, christenings. I'm inundated at the crossroads of life. It gives you a panorama, a perspective of what's going on."

Faith, he says, "doesn't require books and test tubes. It requires you to become a child again. . . . It's hard work, really hard work."

Does he ever question his faith in light of the evils of the world -- slavery, the Holocaust? His face tightens with emotion. "You know why I'm named T.D.?" he asks. "Nobody has written this. I'm not the first T.D. My grandfather was T.D. He died when he was 26."

His grandfather, he explains, worked in a factory, and after work, to refresh himself on the way home, he would swim across the lake. One day he had an argument with a white co-worker and the man put barbed wire under the water. His grandfather got caught in the wire and bled to death. "I've had ancestors in the South who were hung, murdered and raped and everything else. We can't compare pain. The Holocaust was a different horror. You can't lay that to God.

". . . Yes, I question His decisions. I struggle to know His will. Sometimes I feel irrelevant or afraid. None of it destroys my faith.

"I was preaching in the woods in West Virginia and somebody heard me and brought me onstage. I just started talking and people started coming. How could I not believe in God?"

He says that sometimes he sees God most clearly in the love that comes from people. Jakes was one of the first to help out the victims of Katrina and one of the most devoted. "I was at the first buses that landed" in Texas with New Orleans flood victims, he says. "People with crud on their clothes and mud in their hair. It was an amazing experience. I was standing there and people were pulling up in cars and saying, 'I'll take two or three at my house.' People they didn't know. Our bureaucracy and government were disappointing, but our citizens! Nobody wrote about how much America gave."

He is getting passionate about his subject; his body language changes and he leans forward intently.

The biggest problem he sees in America today? "We have lost civility. Look at Don Imus. We say anything we want to say. We no longer treat people with respect.

"We don't have to be obnoxious with each other. When we lose civility we see labels. We don't see people. We're so polarized nationally and internationally. We need more of a centrist leadership today to find common ground." (This is as close as he comes to taking a political stance, now or ever. With no party affiliation, he can appeal to everyone.)

"Now it's one of us has got to be right and the other has to be wrong. . . . Let's heal up. Take a timeout. After 9/11 we were all singing and worshiping together, letting people go in front of you on the highway. Do we have to have a catastrophe to be all together?"

He is in full T.D. Jakes mode now. And you can just see him on the pulpit in front of 80,000 people.

Is this the Pentecostal style? He smiles. "I'm a communicator," he says. "I have one vehicle for one group and another for another group. I communicate in a way that people will understand. I'm not whoopin' and sweatin' at you and I didn't in Aspen [at the Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute] . . . but I can."

His sermons go to hundreds of prisons across the United States and countries around the globe. He has developed a giant following in Africa, where he drew a million people to his sermons. Clearly, this is a man who can talk the talk -- no matter what the language.

As for Jakes and his wife of soon-to-be-25 years, Serita Ann, "we're settling in and choosing our battles. Asking ourselves who are we with the children gone. Who are we with the smell of liniment on our knees. Neither one of us can fit into what we wore at our wedding," he says, smiling as he peers down at his girth.

How will they celebrate the big anniversary?

He sighs. "I'm so tired," he says. "I think we'll just go someplace and snuggle up."

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